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Jeremy Denk dazzles; Florida Orchestra adapts to late program change

Pianist Jeremy Denk performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with the Florida Orchestra.
Published Oct. 22, 2016

TAMPA

One of the world's foremost pianists performed brilliantly Friday with the Florida Orchestra. Jeremy Denk, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize and Musical America's instrumentalist of the year award, showed a surprisingly sparse audience at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts what a world-class pianist sounds like.

It wasn't the concert the orchestra thought it would be playing a week earlier. Denk's representative contacted the orchestra late Oct. 14 to scratch his planned piece, Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, citing a busier-than-expected performance schedule that left Denk short on adequate preparation time for the Ravel, a new work for him. He will play that piece at the Kennedy Center in January.

The substituted work, Piano Concerto No. 20, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is one of the composer's most influential concertos, and Denk is renowned for playing Mozart. Concerto No. 20 represents a turning point to a deeper, more emotionally complex dimension and is regarded as an influence on Ludwig van Beethoven. It opens with a forceful allegro, the piano entering about two minutes in with a contrasting, lilting melody. That kind of counterbalance, so critical to the concerto form, defines this one as piano and orchestra battle and make uneasy peace, finishing each other's sentences and clashing again.

Denk handled all of these delicacies superbly, with dexterity and interpretation, a vessel of great music so clear as to become almost invisible. For its part, the orchestra handled its half of the interplay professionally. A few of the entrances seemed tentative, particularly in the second movement.

They rallied under the baton of guest conductor Karina Canellakis, finishing with precision and verve. Whether the general impression of musicians playing scores, rather than a body making one sound, had anything to do with having their individual rehearsal time cut short is impossible to say.

The orchestra otherwise shone in the three tone-poems that completed the program, which was originally designed as a succession of stories. (Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was commissioned by a World War I veteran who had lost his right arm in the war.) The concert opened with Igor Stravinsky's The Song of the Nightingale, part of his opera, The Nightingale. Notes of sadness, contemplation and grace permeated this piece, which is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable about a bird singing before the Chinese emperor. Soloists delighted, with a piercing flute, a harp and a dancing violin.

The program after intermission was just as good, starting with The Wood Dove, by Antonin Dvorak. Here the orchestra returned to form in a musical narration of a folk tale. Woodwinds and horns replied to the strings, telling a story about a woman's descent into madness after poisoning her husband. A flawless contribution by the strings led to a mournful finishing touch, with the horns playing a role. Canellakis let The Wood Dove sing its last note, then held the silence as an exquisite coda.

The concluding tone poem was Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, by Richard Strauss. The composer cleverly changed the story of the medieval German trickster by having him hanged instead of dying in bed of plague, as some believed. That development allows for a raucous trombones and percussive blasts toward the peak of the 15-minute piece, leading to a furious finish.

The bottom line for the concert show: a net plus. On the minus side is Denk's program change at the heart of the event, and a corresponding slight dip in the orchestra's performance.

On the plus side stands the virtuosity of the pianist himself and the resilience of the orchestra and its guest conductor. They survived a crisis to which they should never have been subjected.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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